Briton Who Drove on Autopilot From Passenger Seat Is Barred From Driver’s Seat, Too

The era of driverless cars is coming down the road.

But not quickly enough for one British man, who ran afoul of the law when he was caught in the front passenger seat of a Tesla set to Autopilot, cruising at about 40 miles per hour with his hands behind his head.

No one was in the driver’s seat.

Witnesses told the police that “traffic was heavy” last May when they saw the nondriver, Bhavesh Patel, 39, of Nottingham, England, in his white Tesla S60 on the M1 motorway near Hemel Hempstead.

The police said in a statement that Mr. Patel, who had owned the car for about five months before the stunt, admitted that what he had done was “silly” but said that the car was capable of something “amazing” and that he was just the “unlucky one who got caught.”

This month, Mr. Patel pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and a court barred him from driving for 18 months.

According to the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire road policing unit, a passenger in another car used a cellphone to record video of Mr. Patel cruising by.

The police said that Mr. Patel had switched on the car’s semiautonomous driving function while it was in motion, and then hopped into the passenger seat — “leaving the steering wheel and foot controls completely unmanned.”

The cellphone footage was first posted on social media before it was reported to the police, who sent a “Notice of Intended Prosecution” to Mr. Patel. He was later interviewed at the Stevenage Police Station.

The authorities consulted a Tesla engineer who said Autopilot features were “intended to provide assistance to a ‘fully attentive driver.’ ”

The investigating constable, Kirk Caldicutt, said: “What Patel did was grossly irresponsible and could have easily ended in tragedy. He not only endangered his own life but the lives of other innocent people using the motorway on that day.”

Two drivers have died in the United States in Tesla cars with Autopilot engaged: one in a Model S sedan in Florida in 2016, and the other in a Model X sport utility vehicle in California in March this year.

March also saw what was believed to be the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology, when a Volvo refitted for autonomous operation by Uber — which had an emergency backup driver behind the wheel — struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Ariz.

In its investigation into the death in Florida in 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that the crash had not resulted from a flaw in Tesla’s systems, but found that Autopilot lacked safeguards to prevent its misuse.

As for Mr. Patel, who could not be reached for comment on Sunday, St. Albans Crown Court ordered him to complete 100 hours of community service and 10 days of rehabilitation, in addition to the driving ban, and to pay 1,800 pounds — about $2,480 — toward the cost of his prosecution.

“This case should serve as an example to all drivers who have access to autopilot controls and have thought about attempting something similar,” Constable Caldicutt added in a statement.

“I hope Patel uses his disqualification period to reflect on why he chose to make such a reckless decision.”